Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin at the Wigmore Hall review *****

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Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Isabelle Faust, Bernhard Forck

Wigmore Hall, 29th June 2017

  • JS Bach – Suite No 2 in A Minor BWV 1067a
  • JS Bach – Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042
  • JS Bach – Violin Concerto in A Minor BWV 1041
  • CPE Bach – String Symphony in B Minor Wq 182/5
  • JS Bach – Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043

I had never seen the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin nor Isabelle Faust before but was aware of their reputations so I was really looking forward to this concert. Well I certainly wasn’t disappointed. This was thrilling stuff. I can safely say these were the best performances of Bach Violin Concertos that I have ever heard (mind you I haven’t heard that many live to be fair).

The opening suite set out the stall. The Akamus was founded in 1982 with many long standing members. It is also boasts a prolific performance schedule. This shared experience shows. The unanimity of the playing was astounding with the whole chamber ensemble moving as one, with every line of Bach’s music audible. A masterclass in amplitude if you like. The A Minor Suite is comprised of six dance movements preceded by an overture and was compelling from the off. There are only relatively brief periods when the solo violin line shines through but this was our introduction to Ms Faust’s ostensibly delicate, but remarkably convincing, playing. It is a mystery to me how someone who appears to barely stroke the strings with the bow creates such grand and convincing phrases.

In the subsequent JS Bach pieces,, the violin of Bernhard Forck was increasingly prominent, both as sympathetic leader, and and as support to Ms Faust. This really was Bach concerto musicianship of the highest order especially in the closing Double Concerto with its majestic fugal opening, sweet slow movement and finale with that three note repeated riff running through The link back to Vivaldi (ritornello is great for dummies like me – all the music I love is repetitive in some way) was highlighted, but the clarity of the playing made it easy to pick out the Bach innovations in each of the violin concertos. I haven’t heard better. 

The CPE Bach piece was new to me and was a fair way from the inoffensive galant style that I had thought was the hallmark of these String symphonies. Not sure I will go out of my way to explore these pieces further but this was more striking than I had anticipated.

I would love to hear more of this ensemble and soloist playing this repertoire. I am even prepared to forgive the couple of frightening perms and suspicious mullet sported by some of the gentleman on show. This will definitely figure in my annual top ten. How sad is that. I am 53. I am not holed up in a musty smelling bedroom. I should have grown out of making lists four decades ago.

 

 

Monteverdi Vespers at the Barbican Hall review *****

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The Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of the AAM, Robert Howarth, Louise Alder, Rowan Pierce, Thomas Hobbs, Charles Daniels

Barbican Hall, 23rd June 2017

It was the Academy of Ancient Music and its choir performing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. It was bound to get 5 stars.

If you have spent your life blissfully unaware of Monteverdi’s Vespers then I implore you to take a listen. I can see that a few people have accidentally stumbled upon this blog, normally when looking for reviews of plays that proper critics and bloggers haven’t bothered to see. So they had no choice but to read my nonsense. If you are one of these people and you happen to open this post by mistake, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE find a way to listen to the Vespers of 1610.

I don’t care what bag of music you are into. I don’t care if you think classical music is a load of nonsense. This is different. I promise. It does go on a bit I admit. Hour and a half. But it is broken up it to lots of different chunks. And it is divine. In both the sacred and secular sense.

Now if you or I wanted a new job we would ask around. Probably scan the press, specialist and general. Contact an agency or if you are an important sort, tap a headhunter. You would dust off the CV and hawk it around. Not our Claudio though. When he wanted to escape from his overbearing employer the Duke of Mantua, feeling overworked and under-appreciated, he wrote this and sent it off to the movers and shakers in the rest of Italy (though it wasn’t Italy then of course) with a particular eye on a job with the cashed up Pope. He was well known largely for his madrigals, where he was the bees knees, the Ed Sheeran of his day. But he wanted a more prestigious position where he could churn out more weighty stuff – like what happens to all talented pop stars when they “want to be taken seriously”. In the end he got the top gig at St Mark’s in Venice.

This explains why Monteverdi mixed up the various styles of church music, some taken from tunes he had already written, to create this Vespers. The title says it all: “To the Most Holy Virgin: a Mass for four voices, for Church chorus, and Vespers to be sung by several voices, with a few sacred songs”. All of the elements of the standard Catholic Vespers are there but interspersed with other elements which make for a masterly mash-up. The piece is unique for its time in the way it looks back to the Renaissance with plainchant melodies anchoring the structures in the five psalms, the hymn (Ave maris stella) and the choruses of the Magnificat, that make up the Vespers. Yet it also looks forward into the Baroque of Bach, and even some proto-Classical homophony, in the four “concertos” and sonata which are more “secular” in sound despite still praising the Virgin Mary to the hilt. All of the contrasting textures, both for voices and instruments, also show why Monteverdi effectively invented opera.

The performance by the AAM and chorus under the guiding hand of Robert Howarth at the harpsichord was excellent I think. Of the soloists we, (BUD wasn’t going to be allowed to miss this one), were most taken with Thomas Hobbes (tenor) and Louise Alder (soprano) but it almost seems churlish to say so. The twenty strong choir was on top form and the AAM (which is made up of some of the finest period music interpreters anyone) was magnificent.

Now you will find smartarses who reject this way of performing the Vespers – several voices to a part, two tenors and two sopranos, step out soloists, “echo’ effects meaning soloists whizzing around the building and so on – but trust me, they can safely be ignored. A perfect Vespers might need a Cathedral and candlelight rather than the Barbican stage but the music is just so amazing that I strongly recommend that you just add this to your bucket list and get on with ticking off. I cast iron guarantee you won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

 

Ensemble InterContemporain at the Wigmore Hall review ****

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Ensemble InterContemporain

Wigmore Hall, 20th June 2017

  • Debussy – Premiere rapsodie
  • Bruno Maderna – Viola
  • Messiaen – Le merle noir
  • Philippe Schoeller – Madrigal
  • Luciano Berio – Sequenza 1
  • Ravel – Violin Sonata
  • Matteo Franceschini – Les Excentriques

Ensemble InterContemporain was founded in 1972 by Pierre Boulez and tenures 31 musicians, based in Paris but international in origin, and allows them to focus on contemporary chamber music. Thank you dirigiste France and take note you English philistines.

Having said that I confess I needed a bit of encouragement to pitch up to this which was provided by the Ravel Violin Sonata, which I haven’t heard performed live for donkeys years, as well as the Berio and the Messiaen pieces. I was less interested in the Debussy and the others works were going to be pot luck. But I figured if anyone could make this all work it would be this renowned collective.

Anyway it turned out to be a largely fascinating programme. The Debussy was more colourful than I anticipated. It was written as a test piece for students at the Paris Conservatoire so it gave clarinettist Jerome Comte a chance to work out accompanied by pianist Hideki Nagano (who I think on the night was the most assured performer – I would like to here him play in a solo capacity). The Bruno Maderna is a whole different barrel of fish. This is scored in open form which means the performer (Odile Auboin here) can choose their own route through the score. Interesting but I couldn’t help feeling this made for a somewhat tentative performance with no line I could follow,

The Messiaen piece was also written for students at the Conservatoire, this time flautists. There is a bit of bird song at the off as you might expect, then a few twiddly phrases and finally a mix of serial phrases on the piano and more rhythmic patterns on the flute, here sympathetically played by Sophie Cherrier. Good stuff. Now I confess the structure of the Philippe Schoeller piece escaped me, and the programme notes here went in to pretentious overdrive as they did with the premiered work by Matteo Franceschini. It is a piano quartet “informed” by Renaissance madrigals which contained some dazzling tremolo and glissando sounds as strings and piano came together. It will require some further investigation.

Berio’s Sequenza I is written for flute and, like all the Sequenzas, is a fine, direct piece. It consists of individual notes but you can discern the chords these would create so has a logic which makes listening straightforward. I thought Sophie Cherrier’s rendition was perfect. Ravel’s Violin Sonata (No 2) took him a bit of time to complete and is contemporaneous with his opera L’Enfant et les Sortileges. Like that work it is imbued with the spirit of the jazz, most notably in the “Blues” second movement, but also in phrases in the first movement. The last movement with its dancing semi-quavers for the violin is a personal favourite and I thoroughly enjoy Jeanne-Marie Conquer’s playing.

The soloists all returned for the Franceschini piece which is a collection of six character studies based on real though unnamed “eccentric” people. The first and last studies had a bit of pace about them but the other four were a bit more pedestrian and I am afraid I wasn’t up to the task of following the thread of the music.

Overall this was a rewarding evening listening to some fine musicians explore some exciting repertoire. Both Mr Schoeller and Mr Franceschini were in attendance. It is such a joy to see a composer and performers taking a bow. Glad I took the plunge. Contemporary classical music is a specialist pursuit and I get that for the vast majority of people this is all nonsense. But for me it is important that composers and musicians push the boundaries. The audience for modern and contemporary plastic arts is expanding. In time I think the same will happen for contemporary classical music. Mind you finding some mug to go along with is proving a challenge for me but I am convinced I will prevail, even if I may have to employ a little subterfuge.

 

 

 

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall review ****

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Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins, Jan Mracek

Cadogan Hall, 16th June 2017

  • Berio – Sequenza V for solo trombone
  • Prokofiev – Quintet in G Minor
  • Debussy – Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune,
  • Beethoven – Violin Concerto,
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 5

A welcome innovation from the RPO at its Cadogan Hall home. As a prelude to the main concert a short chamber concert was served up. In this case, an intriguing pairing of one of Berio’s Sequenzas, here for trombone, alongside Prokofiev’s infrequently programmed (at least in my experience) Quintet. The main concert was a triptych of favoured warhorses which can usually tempt me in.

The Berio piece is the usual exploration of musical technique that these sequenzas demand. There is a healthy dose of humorous novelty at work here in the techniques employed and some of the directions in the score, best of all, the fact that the soloist, has to dress up as a clown (I’ll let you look up Berio’s reasons for this!). The Principal Trombone of the RPO, Matthew Gee, didn’t disappoint, either in his rather elegant outfit (shoes and bald bloke wig being the main concessions) or in playing. The piece is fascinating but smartly doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Prokofiev Quintet is scored for oboe, clarinet, violin, violin and double bass which gives plenty of opportunity for the quirky invention that our Sergei seemed to revel in. The six movements have plenty of dynamic colour and the derivation of the piece, originally a commission for a chamber ballet, is very clear, I was reminded once again that I need to pay more attention to Prokofiev’s chamber music. So I will.

As for the main orchestral pieces, well the Debussy washed over me as it always does so I am afraid I am no real judge of Mr Brabbin’s interpretation nor the RPO’s performance. The Beethoven however took me back to familiar ground and this was a stirring performance by all concerned. Jan Mracek was making his debut with this orchestra having established a growing reputation in his native Czech. His playing is certainly idiomatic of his homeland which made for an interesting contrast with Mr Brabbin’s very deliberate reading. It livened up for finale though I confess I have heard more uplifting endings.

The Shostakovich was the meat course for me though and here Mr Brabbin’s careful phrasing and cool incision paid dividends. This was a performance that really drew out the Mahlerian parallels especially in movements 2 and 3. No irony in the ending here. This was definitively the response to “just criticism” that Shostakovich claimed it was (probably to save his own skin) and could easily be digested by those partial to a bit of C19 romanticism. The pounding Russian rhythms and banal folksy melodies were in evidence but this was more Autumnal middle Europe than Siberian winter. Stalin would have been made up with this first movement. I am not sure this is how I want my DSCH 5 to always sound but it was satisfying to hear this approach given a full airing.

 

 

 

Murray Perahia at the Barbican Hall review ***

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Murray Perahia

Barbican Hall, 11th June 2017

  • J S Bach – French Suite No 6 in E major, BWV 817
  • Schubert – 4 Impromptus Op 142, D 935
  • Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K 511
  • Beethoven -Sonata No 32 in C minor, Op 111

Murray Perahia is a great pianist. No doubt about that. And I am always keen to hear his Beethoven interpretations. However the last few concerts I have seen in London from him have been a mixed bag. The solo recital this time last year was a little underwhelming with a fine Mozart A minor sonata offset by a curiously underpowered Hammerklavier. In contrast his Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 and 4 earlier this year, with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields which he also directed, were marvellous. Another performance of PC No 4 under the mighty Bernard Haitink’s baton was also sensational.

In this concert we had a similarly puzzling evening. The Bach was the best of the bunch, played with great clarity and musicality and with that lovely counterpoint revealed in all its perky glory. I won’t comment on the Schubert – I just don’t really get on with it – but the audience was clearly persuaded. I didn’t know the mournful Mozart Rondo but this was a compelling rendition so I will need to check it out.

The Beethoven, his final sonata, with its curious structure and strange, ethereal musings, took a bit of time to get going. Mr Perahia’s treatment of the Maestoso opening of the first movement was more deliberate than the recordings I know (Pollini and Paul Lewis are my favourites) but by the time we reached the fugal development, which uses the whole keyboard, it was back in the groove. The longer second movement, with its six variations largely in C major, was much more convincing and here I got lost in the beauty of Beethoven’s music. The movement is near 20 minutes in total but always seems timeless to me.

So a fine evening of solo piano music but not quite as engrossing as I had hoped.

Mahan Esfahani at the Wigmore Hall review ****

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Mahan Esfahani

Wigmore Hall, 5th June 2017

  • Thomas Tomkins – Pavane in A Minor
  • Giles Farnaby – Woody-Cock
  • Henry Cowell – Set of Four
  • WF Bach – Sonata E Flat Major
  • Steve Reich (arr Esfahani) – Piano Phase

The harpsichord is certainly not my favourite instrument. (Electric guitar since you ask). More than happy listening to it tinkling away as continuo in the best of Baroque but less persuaded of its solo virtues. Yet in the spirit of adventure, with an appealing programme and with Mr Esfahani’s reputation as one of the best in the harpsichord business, this was worth a shot. (For those that don’t know £15 for these lunchtime recitals at the best chamber music venue in the world is a bargain so, if you work locally, get in).

Now a cursory glance at previous posts will show that I am a sucker for liking most of what I see. I like to think this is because I have a eye for the best that the London cultural world has to offer (within the self-imposed boundaries I have set). However, I know that the reality is somewhat different. I am simply far too polite to offend and anyway I am enjoy reminding myself just how discerning I am in my solitary little echo chamber. So you would be wise to ignore everything I say.

In this case though I took a bit of a punt on something and I was genuinely bowled over. I didn’t know it was possible to hear a harpsichord make these kinds of sounds. The two early pieces from Tomkins and Farnaby show, in astounding fashion, just what the bewigged musicians of the Jacobean and Tudor period where up to following the example set by the master William Byrd. Woody-Cock (no sniggering at the back please), the piece by Giles Farnaby, takes a simple Scottish folk tune and turns into a dazzling display of keyboard virtuosity –  the woodcock being a dowdy nondescript little brown fellow until he starts displaying when he turns into the Nureyev of the air. Anyway it was a real lesson in what the harpsichord can do.

As was the piece by Henry Cowell. The programme notes tell me that Mr Cowell set out to marry the musical structures of the Baroque golden age of the harpsichord with the tonal language of composition in the 1960s, and with more than a nod to the then voguish fascination with the gamelan and Balinese music. It was certainly fascinating with a wide range of colours that I had not thought possible on the harpsichord. Not sure if I would seek it out again but I am glad to have been given the opportunity to hear it. The WF Bach took us back to more familiar ground although this era, the galant, the bridge between Baroque and Classical, when all was lightness of touch, can still sometimes come across as a bit frou-frou. Not here to be fair as there was still enough of the Baroque rhythmic backbone and a few darker touches in the piece.

Finally Mr Esfahani took on Steve Reich’s piano phase which he has arranged for harpsichord. So on with the headphones and the tape machine, and off with the jacket, leaving him looking like the least cool DJ on the planet. As he himself freely admits this piece pulls in a new audience to hear the harpsichord – including me. My musical education has come on in leaps and bounds but this still was the main draw for me. The harpsichord creates avery different sound-world when compared to the piano. The slight delay of the tape recording, which is the signature of Reich’s technique, created sonorities which were closer to Reich’s percussive pieces that the piano version. It certainly seemed to forge a more repetitive structure than the versions I am more familiar with.

Overall then this was an excellent journey through the possibilities that are offered by the harpsichord and I will certainly look out for Mr Esfahani’s next visit to London.

Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades

Barbican Hall, 6th June 2017

  • Gerard Barry – Chevaux-de-frise
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major. Op 55 “Eroica”

That Beethoven eh. Too busy being a genius to get a decent haircut. Another reason why he is my sort of bloke.

I have raved about the other two concerts in this cycle, Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review ***** and Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall ***** so I suspect you won’t be too surprised if I do the same again here. Whilst I am not sure I would want my Eroica to always sound this way it was, as with the performances of Symphonies 1 and 2, an exhilarating restatement of this mighty work.

First though the Gerard Barry piece that Thomas Ades chose to pair with it. Apparently this got a kicking when it premiered at the Proms in 1988. I don’t know why. Yes it is loud, sometimes excruciatingly so, but it is hardly difficult. It was inspired by the destruction of the C16 Spanish Armada off the west coast of Barry’s native Ireland. and the title refers to those pointy wooden array of fixed spears that were used on battlefields to defend against cavalry attacks. You educated types will also know that it refers to a spiky piece of prose deliberately inserted by an author to unsettle you.

So Mr Barry didn’t hide his intentions. The piece begins and continues with a wall of sound from strings, then brass and woodwinds and then the whole shebang, and pretty much continues in this vein for most of the first ten minutes. There are then some “softer” interludes and a glockenspiel (I think) chimes in which offers the only percussive influence (thus making the noise-fest more interesting I think). The chords are comprised largely of crotchets and quavers, the score is marked “spikily” or “brutally” and the effect is of pounding dissonant rhythms. I loved it and I suspect that anyone who has been near any form of “loud” rock music from any genre would feel the same way.

Having located the inner Napalm Death in the Britten Sinfonia Mr Ades seemed keen to channel this into the Beethoven symphony. From the off we were treated to fast tempi which is my preferred default setting (one of my favoured Beethoven cycle recordings is John Eliot Gardiner’s with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique which will hearld a few sniggers from classical buffs). Minimal vibrato and a clear, brilliant sound really pumped up the score which, as any fool knows, is a work of unparalleled genius. (I know the “great male genius” narrative of artistic endeavour is bullsh*t but Beethoven just was, so yah boo sucks to you).

It was just really exciting though in places it did threaten to career out of control. Yet the detail of the phrasing and the dynamic breadth more than compensated. This will sound cliched but it really did feel like the whole score had been given a thorough cleansing, like a restored old master.

I cannot recommend this cycle highly enough based on the three symphonies so far. Thomas Ades and the Britten Sinfonia will be back in May next year to take on 4. 5 and 6. Please go along. If you have never been to a classical concert and don’t think it is for you make this your debut. Get a decent recording of these pieces, shove them on your IPhone, wait for the movements to shuffle through a few times to get to know the tunes, then take the time to listen to the whole thing one evening (phone off). This will mean you are tooled up for the real thing come next May. Then sit back and wait for your socks to be blown off.